"To stand before an empty wall as in a trance… to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outward or recede into the depths, this was bliss."
Hans Feibusch on mural painting
Europe Day is celebrated every year on 9th May. In advance of tomorrow's celebrations, we asked Beth McHattie, one of the Festival team, to tell us more about Hans Feibusch, a European refugee who fled from the horrors of Nazism and whose artwork is featured in St John's Church.
Hans Feibusch was a German Jew probably responsible for more murals than any other artist in the history of the Church of England – and St John’s Waterloo has two of them. Crucifixion and The Adoration of the Shepherds, commissioned for the church’s re-opening as the Festival of Britain church in 1951, are its undoubted treasures.
But how did a Jewish artist come to be painting murals for churches all over the south of England? And why isn’t he a more familiar name in 20th century art?
Born in Frankfurt in 1898, Feibusch came under the influence of the German Expressionists, and in particular of Max Beckmann. "I painted natural objects, or perhaps fantastic ones," he remembered, "but reduced to simple forms and bright colours holding a balance between what seemed to me the spiritually significant and the fussy detail."
In 1930, he won the German Grand State Prize for Painters but in 1933, after Hitler’s rise to power, Jewish artists were told they would never exhibit again and like some 200 others, he fled to Britain. In 1937, his work was included in Hitler’s famous Degenerate Art exhibition (Entartete Kunst), alongside that of Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoschka and many other now famous names.
Once in London, he was welcomed into the London Group (whose current members exhibited at across several exhibitions at Waterloo Festival 2018 and 2019) and won his first mural commission from architect Maxwell Fry for the New Methodist Hall at Colliers Wood in 1937. The Footwashing was reproduced in The Times and spotted by Kenneth Clark (then Director of the National Gallery), who drew it to the attention of Bishop George Bell of Chichester who had played a role in organising the Kindertransport rescue of Jewish children from the Nazis.
The Bishop became Feibusch’s friend and champion. He gave him his first Anglican commission for St Wilfrid’s, Brighton, which was followed by many others, including The Baptism of Christ at Chichester Cathedral and the extensive Pilgrim’s Progress cycle in the crypt of St Elisabeth’s, Eastbourne.
Pilgrim’s Progress was created in 1944 and uses John Bunyan’s allegorical story to tell Feibusch’s own story of escape from Nazi Germany and his arrival in England. It was painted as a gift to the local community, but has been out of sight since 2002 when the church was closed. A campaign is underway to restore the mural and find a new home for it.
Feibusch’s commission for St John’s Waterloo was another significant moment as it marked the start of a 10-year collaboration with Thomas Ford, the War Damage Surveyor for the Diocese of Southwark and a leading church architect of the time. Ford’s son left an account of how architect and artist worked together. Ford would determine “the positioning, size, and shape of the murals”, and once the project details were agreed, Feibusch, would be “increasingly in control”.
At St John’s, Ford took the decision not to replace the bomb-damaged East window (pictured above) but to block it up and commission a mural from Feibusch in its place behind the high altar. Recent investigation reveals that the Crucifixion is painted on a gypsum panel only 10-12 millimetres thick and that the mural is in urgent need of repair.* Canon Giles, Vicar of St John's, tells us more about this project: